Saturday, May 01, 2010

Zen and the Feast of Violence

An anonymous commenter posted this question in reply to an earlier post, in which I talked about the roles I've been playing recently:

Work is good. But how does putting more images of/energy into violence jive with zen?

Good question. Are you asking about Zen as an awareness practice, or are you asking about the moral dimensions of the actor's work? I'll address the latter first.

The actor's job, almost always, is to portray characters in dramatic play. The essence of drama is conflict: "I want this, you are in my way, I need to get around you and obtain what I want." The violence may or may not be physical. We are acting out dukkha, the cycle of human craving and conflict, in story after story. Maybe this is why the Lotus Sutra warns Buddhists to stay away from actors. The conception can arise that actors are simply rehearsing and celebrating greed, attachment, and delusion.

I probably don't need to say what we all know about violence in popular culture. Commercial entertainment constantly, daily, celebrates and justifies violence. It instills the idea in us, from an early age, that violence is blessed and righteous as long as the right people are doing it -- which is an idea essential to militarism, terrorism, and nationalism.

It does put the actor into a moral bind. As an added bonus, women in this profession are routinely asked to objectify human sexuality and their own bodies. Men are, too, but it is not routine for us. There is an interesting perception, in fact, that nudity in commercial films is linked to power, as when we speak of a time that such-and-such an actress still "had to do" topless scenes. Younger actresses, especially early in their careers, are seen as more exploitable, in our expectation they will be more willing to feed the commercial appetite for naked ladies.

Actors can, and sometimes do, turn down projects for moral reasons. Sometimes they can negotiate about sex or stereotypes, and win concessions. These exercises of choice, however, do not alter the bigger picture. Commercial values and tastes reign supreme. Horror movies get made because they stand the best chance of making money. If you're an independent filmmaker, you're doing a horror film because that is what will get commercial distribution, whereas your non-violent movie celebrating wisdom, compassion, and peace will be labeled an "art film" and won't get distributed.

Sometimes an actor can find a way to change the content, going against the commercial narrative and commenting on it. These are rare, exceptional victories in a world where the actor must choose between commercial values and making a living. Unless one is in a position to create their own projects, it can even be a choice about working at all.

That is our moral predicament.

The questioner, however, asks about Zen practice. Zen practice itself is the true practice of gnosis, of looking without holding to opinions, of realizing a personal and intimate awakening to this very moment, and a commitment to returning to that awareness moment after moment -- a full awakening into just this. This is the beginning of taking responsibility for this suffering world. It is not a process of intellection or moralizing about it; it makes no comment on phenomena; it is about perception and bearing witness for the benefit of all sentient being.

(That's not a typo, by the way. Being, not beings, feels more accurate somehow.)

Actors, and the field in which they work, certainly own some responsibility for the problem we are discussing.

Now my question for you is, what can we do together?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughtful answer. You ask what we can do together. Good question - as I in the past years have cut way back on participating in popular culture/mass media. So not sure of what doing together with a movie actor would be.

Lest you feel put upon, I have moral qualms about parts of my life, too. Yours just seemed a more obvious target. None of us live lives beyond reproach or improvement.

Still, I feel that putting so much energy into violence is feeding something that I would rather avoid. Is this a case of ignorance is bliss or something else?

Lots more questions I could ask on your post...

Algernon said...

My pleasure, Anon.

Even if we end up sharing a single mindful conversation, that helps.